Wine makers at heart, Blackdown Spirits’ Sarah and Nathan Thompson are artisans of their trade. Blackdown Spirits launched their unique Sussex Dry Gin at the Imbibe trade show in July 2013. Their winery, Lurgashall, is enclosed by Southdowns National Park at the foothills of Blackdown, from which the spirit takes it’s name.
The wheat spirit used for the company’s Sussex Dry Gin is produced in Cambridge (where the gin is also distilled), but the process is finished at the company’s Lurgashall Winery. Blackdown co-founder Sarah Thompson said there are plans to build their own distillery within a year and once made will be “Sussex’s very first distillery.” With a background in plumbing and heating, her partner, Nathan Thompson plans to install the still himself.
The duo are not new to the industry, and have managed to establish a respected business already. The Lurgashall Winery is nestled in a 38-acre estate beneath Blackdown Hill, the highest point in West Sussex where the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson once had his home. They began production in 1985 with just two employees and twelve customers and produced a thousand bottles a year. Today the winery employs 22 full and part-time staff, has more than a thousand regular stockists and its annual production approaches half a million bottles.
Blackdown Sussex Dry Gin to taste…
Blackdown’s Sussex Dry Gin is a blend of 11 different botanicals including juniper, cinnamon bark, angelica root, liquorice and, quite uniquely – Sussex silver birch sap. The addition of silver birch sap happens after the distillation. According to Sarah Thompson, this is why the overall ABV drops to under 40%. It’s presence is certainly noticeable in the gin too, with the woody aromas blending with juniper and coriander and the silver birch adding a touch more viscosity than one would usually expect in the mouth feel of a gin. The gin is sweet too, perhaps due to the liquorice root, but also because of the slight sweetness inherent in the sap.
Interestingly, much like juniper, Birch as a tree has a long and chequered history. For those of a certain age, one might remember it as the preferred material for the rods used in corporal punishments in schools or for the really old readers (good going if you are out there and still geeking out on gin with us!) for public flogging of young offenders. Thankfully in the creation of Blackdown Gin, one doesn’t have to flagellate themselves any longer to use the wood in a way to cleanse the soul, it can now simply be imbibed!
The process of getting the Silver Birch syrup is no easy feat however, as more than 100 gallons of birch sap are needed to make a single gallon of birch syrup.
Talking about the inclusion of Silver Birch and the expansion into the world of gin, Sarah said: “It’s a natural route for us to go down – we’ve been using gin and vodka at the winery for 40 years to make liqueurs, sloe gins and elderberry port, among other things. It’s readily available to us – we sit on 40 acres of Silver Birch trees. It has a really clean flavour to it – it was a natural thing for us to look at.”
With a tough, crowded marketplace that’s relatively unforgiving, it’ll be interesting to see how they fair. Since their launch, they have improved social media feeds and spruced up their website, and with a sister winery that’s respected but not exactly well known yet – it’s all moving in the right direction. The gin can now be found in numerous stores and keeps growing year on year. Blackdown is a good gin and Sarah and Nathan Thompson are the genuine article who are passionate about what they do, so there’s plenty to get excited about. We really hope they can build on their initial product launch and pave their way towards becoming another established artisanal distillery in the UK.
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